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Why Measurement Matters in a Post-COVID World

In 2020, COVID-19 caused nearly 50 million public school students to pivot to distance learning, and many school systems were unprepared, lacking basic infrastructure to support the immediate need for learning at home. These challenges have persisted into 2021 as rising new infections and fragmented vaccine rollouts have clouded the fate of students safely returning to public school buildings for in-person learning.

The pandemic disrupted the education community at all levels, and students, teachers, and parents have taken the brunt of the disruption. COVID-19 caused growing concern of wide-spread learning loss for students, and ACT, along with the larger education community, is grappling with understanding the long-term effects of the pandemic on student success and the compounding effects on students’ mental health.

ACT believes measurement matters in understanding and addressing the historic effects COVID-19 is having on our students so that we can best help the federal government, states, school systems, teachers, and parents identify learning gaps and address systemic educational inequalities for our students—specifically first-generation students, students from low-income families, English language learners, and Black and Brown students who are at the highest risk regarding learning loss and college matriculation.

A study from McKinsey on learning loss and disparities estimates that “students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.” This is unacceptable.

Measuring learning loss so that it can be properly addressed is critical for long-term education and career success for all students, particularly for students who have the most to lose. We must understand where we are if we are to know where we must go; measurement matters now more than ever.

Last week, the Biden administration released its decision and guidance on testing and accountability to Chief State School Officers that state-wide testing should proceed but with flexibility. ACT agrees and applauds the administration’s position on the importance of state-wide testing used to assess learning, respective of accountability. In the wake of COVID-19, we need measures that can empower and inform students, parents, and teachers on gaps in learning and inform course navigation or remediation so students have the best chance of future success.

Testing is important not only to assess learning (gains and losses) and address it, but tests like the ACT also provide a reliable, comparable, and non-subjective indicator in the college admissions process. ACT’s longstanding position is that a test score should not be a litmus test for admission, but, rather one critical objective data point in a holistic evaluation. Grade inflation was already a pervasive problem before the pandemic, and advantaged students are even further benefitted when admissions policies are made more subjective. Holistic admissions policies to promote equity and diversity are based on the premise of increasing the number of factors considered in context, not removing them.

It is also worth mentioning that admissions tests are utilized by postsecondary institutions to accurately place students in courses for which they are prepared, and when utilized optimally, to ensure that they have the supports needed to promote their success. Removing an ACT score—an empirically verified indicator of academic readiness—from admission and placement decisions almost certainly means an increase in ill-prepared students, potentially lowering academic standards, and increasing the number of dropouts whose admission criteria did not, in fact, reflect their readiness for college. In addition to having no degree, many of these students will also be saddled with debt and disillusionment.

According to recent EY-Parthenon findings, “four-year higher education institutions report significant use of testing data in almost every aspect of the enrollment process, despite the 20-30 percent decrease in student’s sending test scores. It creates process challenges for admissions and a pain point for merit scholarships without a reliable, non-subjective indicator.”

The truth about test optional is that it’s “test preferred.” The vast majority of test optional schools still prefer a student take a test for purposes like course placement and important scholarship decisions that otherwise would be difficult to award, especially to students whose GPAs do not accurately indicate their academic abilities.

As the education community prepares to measure and address COVID-19 learning loss, ACT data could provide valuable insights as to the effects of the pandemic and provide a measurement roadmap to help mitigate and address it. ACT is committed to efforts to improving both equity and educational outcomes for all students and to providing as many opportunities as possible for students to take the ACT test, particularly now as other admission information, such as grades, courses, and GPAs, may be missing, incomplete, or imprecise (e.g., pass/fail) and massive learning loss is looming.